Twenty songs over a double CD (well, nineteen actually, one’s a bonus download); you’re never quite sure what message that sends. The official line is that some songs work with band arrangements, some are best as solo/duo arrangements and that’s the way they’ve been split. Personally, my response to studio double albums is one of wariness; could it have been better as a single? We’ll see.

The common theme across the two albums is obvious. It’s not just Texas, but the southern states and the mentality of small-town America. The melodies are good, Jeb Barry’s voice is striking, cracking with emotion at times, but the real power is in the lyrics. He knows how to tell a story and how create a memorable phrase, a lyrical hook that’s as potent as the melodic ones. In “El Paso Sucks”, there’s a reference to the woman being ‘sideways on champagne’ while “Southern Oak” (taking the opposite tack from the marvellous “Speedtrap Town”) makes the observation that ‘hell and high water make good roots’. And let’s not forget the observation from “Miss Mississippi” that ‘drunk and stupid’s no excuse’.

The playing on the album is all in the service of the songs. You won’t find any lengthy solos or massive riffs, everything’s there to get the message of the song over, whether it’s lovely harmonies or the good old sus4 to create a Byrds/Tom Petty feel on “If This Heart Had Walls”. There’s nothing to take a strong dislike to and there are plenty of strong songs. The download-only song “Speedtrap Town” is a real standout, warning of the literal and metaphorical dangers of straying away from the highway.

And that thing about double albums? Well, I’m still not convinced. I would love to hear a single album edit of this set of songs, but I wouldn’t want to fall out about it.

“texas, etc.” is released on April 27th on Dollyrocker Records (DR-2018-01).

It’s difficult enough working out where to start a Phil Burdett review at the best of times without having to contend with an album that doesn’t actually start or finish anywhere. The clue’s in the song title “Sisyphus on Denmark Street”; the songwriter condemned forever to push a stone uphill. It could be worse; look what they did to Prometheus. The album cycles continuously from the birth of the dawn in “Net of Joy” to the dusk and senescence of “Dotage Train” and back to the beginning again, linked by the phrase ‘heavy miles to go’ in each song. Reincarnation without any upward or downward mobility and inspiration from the unholy poetic trilogy of William Blake, John Clare and Arthur Rimbaud.

If you’re part of the generation that doesn’t listen to albums, this isn’t for you; “Psychopastoral” is designed to be heard in a certain order, start to finish and then again and maybe once more, just to be sure that it is actually a work of genius. Phil’s taken a simple approach to ensuring we listen to everything in the intended order; the entire album’s one track with songs connected by musical and lyrical fragments. Does it work? Bloody right it does; at just under an hour, the images, fragments and melodies rush past at breakneck speed then start all over again bringing fresh musical and verbal marvels to discover.

I could spend hours going into minute detail about every aspect of this album, but that’s not going to help anyone, so I’ll try to pick out some of the attention to detail that permeates every aspect of this beautiful piece of work. How about the musicians? The core of this ensemble has been with Phil for a few years now and each one brings their own individual talents to a great ensemble sound. John Bennett (guitar) is one of my local heroes; comparisons with Steve Cropper are more than justified – not showy, but everything fits perfectly. Steve Stott adds colour and texture with bright mandolin and melancholy fiddle and Colleen McCarthy’s backing and lead vocals are a pure and clear foil for Phil’s soulful growl. And of course, Russ Strothard’s melodic bass playing, Lyndon Morgan’s spoken word contributions and the samples and programming contributed by Al Franklinos.

Phil’s voice sounds as good as I’ve ever heard it and the words are as densely packed with meaning and allusion as ever. I’m not going to bore you with my amateur literary criticism, you can delve into the layers of meaning for yourself (there’s a lyric booklet as part of the CD package); you’ll find it packed with autobiographical references both pleasurable and painful alongside the odd skewed musical reference (‘needles of death and the damaged rum’ from “Sisyphus on Denmark Street”).

I’m a huge admirer of Phil’s work, particularly from “Dunfearing and the West Country High” onwards and with “Psychopastoral”, he’s made an unflinching, uncompromising album that flies in the face of convention in its stance on sequencing and playback. There are some memorably catchy songs embedded in the piece, and Phil’s determined that they stay embedded and we hear them as part of the overall creation. It’s an ambitious project, but it’s perfect in every little detail. Favourite album of the year so far? I think so.

“Psychopastoral” is out now you; can order it direct from Phil’s website.

Oh me, oh my. What a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive. Have I just watched The Wailers? I think I have, but it required a degree of mental flexibility, upfront, to convince myself of this.

The present line-up of The Wailers features Aston Barrett, Jnr., on drums; the son of the legendary Carlton Barrett, drummer with the Wailers at the time of Marley’s death, and, let us not mince words here, an amazing drummer. To be a proficient reggae drummer is to understand rhythms within rhythms and to use percussion in a way that is just other-worldly. To be expert at this is to be one of very, very few. To be in direct bloodline to this remarkable musical collective is to be unique, especially given that his father was murdered in Jamaica in 1987.

The sadly deceased Carlton’s brother, Aston, is generally referred to as ‘Familyman’ due to his organisational skills in getting the band together following Marley’s untimely death; a label he earned sometime before fathering what are claimed by some to be 52 children. And he’s only 71. He was/is the bass player who provided the ‘thump’ behind so many of the Marley biggies; indeed the combination of the two brothers could pretty much be described as the reggae version of Motown’s legendary Funk Brothers, having worked with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry as part of The Upsetters. They were very much the nucleus of the musicians who became Bob Marley’s backing band, along with vocal back-up from the I Threes, when the original Wailers split in 1974. But Aston is pretty much confined to a wheelchair tonight, and bass duties are largely being looked after by ‘Dreadie’ Reid.

The main focal point and powerhouse in all this, though, is Junior Marvin. Recruited to And The Wailers in 1977 after working for Island Records on a Steve Winwood project, he featured on the majority of those later Marley jukebox hits and he was very much the right man in the right place at the right time; and in fairness it is pretty difficult to see how the 2018 incarnation of The Wailers could function without him. On stage and in the context of a gig which might be described as ‘challenging’, he certainly emerged as nominal band ‘leader’.

Donald Kinsey adds the ‘rock’ to Marvin’s reggae chops. Not only has he toured with Bob Marley and the Wailers and Peter Tosh, he’s toured with the likes of blues legend Albert King amongst others as well  – and his rocky roots are very much in evidence when he cuts loose on one of many deft and sinuous solos.

And to top this off, singer Shema McGregor is daughter of one of the original I Three; Judy Mowatt. And the front man, in the eyes of most of the audience having to shoulder the mantle of Bob Marley for the night, John David Barrett, is a distant relative of Aston Barrett.

Live audio engineer Dennis Thompson is on keyboards of various kinds and knobs and twiddly bits and he is the guy who was largely responsible for ‘that sound’ on the band’s output and on tour in the seventies. His importance to The Wailers is – and was – as Billy Preston to The Beatles or Ian Stewart to The Rolling Stones.

Blimey.

Anyway.

What sort of deal do you have to make with yourself before going to see The Wailers in 2018? Well, the first and most important part of the deal is that you have to accept that Bob Marley Is Dead. Get Over It.

That part of the deal is particularly important. It’s a bit like going to see The Blockheads since the death of Ian Dury.

So, what are we left with? An impressive body of work, great songs captured on memorable recordings and a collective of musicians with the spectacular skills, passion and desire to carry the music forward in a live context.

Like it or not and as time goes by, we will see more of this. Ageing or ill members of bands will step down, or will just leave, to be replaced by other musicians who have earned the right to take their place, and we will be in a situation where we will be paying very straight-faced money to see a band with a particular name, with none of the ORIGINAL members, but with member or members who joined the band later in life, but are still part of the band’s organic development. This is by no means far-fetched. And sometimes it can work out very well, and mean that the music goes forward into the future. Dr. Feelgood is an honourable example of this.

And what’s the alternative? The music dies in a live context with the death of the main man or woman? Is that what we REALLY want?

Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. You pays your money. Or you doesn’t.

Well, I did and after a delay getting into the venue I arrived just in time to hear the support band, Common Kings, playing their last tune.

And the sound was positively hideous. The stage and all that surrounded it was reverberating with a horrible bass rumble that returned once The Wailers ambled into position. “Irie” was a booming mess, and a bemused-looking band stumbled into “Rastaman Vibration” with no great sense of commitment or confidence. Many meaningful looks were exchanged until part-way through “Buffalo Soldier”, Junior Marvin threw his guitar off and stalked to the side of the stage where a harassed – looking technician was engaged to try and do something about the awful mess, which was clearly driving Dennis Thompson, on keyboards, etc., for the night, to the point of distraction. And so it should have done. I really don’t know what happened between sound check and gig but…..anyway, you get the picture.

Once the band had slipped into “I Shot the Sheriff”, (see what I mean? Do you REALLY never want to hear this again live and as intended?) things seemed to right themselves. This isn’t of course the case; someone on the desk would have been frantically rebalancing, re-patching, etc., but whatever and whoever did what, well done, because suddenly most of the clouds lifted and whilst the vocals were a little ‘muddy’ all night it did become a hugely enjoyable gig, with some qualifications.

The band slipped into “Easy Skankin” before a show-stopping “No Woman, No Cry”. Having shots like this in your locker means never having to say you’re sorry.

“Heathen” and then “3 Little Birds” had Manchester’s finest in full voice; especially when the band morphed the song into “One Love”. Put another coin in the jukebox. “Waiting In Vain”. And played so beautifully. The band pass vocals between Josh David Barrett, Junior Marvin and Dennis Thompson as well as I Two (!) and such was Marley’s vocal prowess, it took all of them to pull the trick, if indeed it is a trick, off.

A funky, sweaty “Roots, Rock, Reggae” gives way to one of Marley’s most beautiful and enduring love songs – “Is This Love”, played and sung spookily faithfully and by now I have bought into Marvin’s assertion that in order to gain Marley’s blessing to carry on as The Wailers, they had to agree to make sure the music was played live as well as it had been; and a thoroughly stirring “Stir It Up” confirmed this. And by now the place is going absolutely berserk. Doubts dispelled, cynicism put quietly to bed with a warm drink and a good book. And then the band blasts into “Could You Be Loved”.

And the whole thing falls over after about five seconds.

Usually when something goes horribly wrong and a band stops dead after a few seconds, there is either an extended period of recriminations and swearing and the very public apportioning of blame, or a similarly extended period of forced smiles and giggling apologies, concentrated tuning up and associated farting around.

But there isn’t the time for this and the musicians in the band know this. They’ve been on the road between them for probably approaching a thousand years and they know that at this point in the gig, especially if you’ve been fighting technical difficulties of various kinds, you have to strike whilst the force is with you; and indeed within about three nanoseconds we’re off again, all-important momentum maintained – and Friday night is saved for the assembled. The reception is rapturous and becomes increasingly so as they strike up “Jammin” and the place erupts.

And that’s just about all for now, folks. The band wander off severally, some looking rather sheepish as if they’ve just about gotten away with it…..but in fairness they had far surpassed this. There were times during this gig where the band’s performance was little short of transcendental.

It is a shame, then, when the band returns – well, some of them do – and simply perform “Redemption Song” before taking a bow. I know from the setlist drummer Aston Jnr. kindly gave me afterwards that the intention had been to play “Lively Up Yourself”, “Get Up, Stand Up” and “Exodus” amongst others but either one of two things happened. Either the band had taken to the stage later than they had intended and were caught the wrong side of a curfew, or because the technical problems, which diminished but never disappeared entirely, made it so that they really hadn’t enjoyed the gig as much as the audience clearly had; for the skeletal encore was rapturously received. But you can’t tour the album ‘Legend’ without playing ‘Exodus’. It ain’t my bandstand, but you just can’t.

However, be that as it may, what a night they are. And you will end up telling your grandkids about this one, and you will probably subtitle your bedtime story ‘The Night I Saw Marley’s Ghost’.

Or not.  Been done before.

Not so much a gig review as a triumphant celebration, I think. On March 16 2017 I was talking to Martin Harley after a gig he’d played with Daniel Kimbro at The Forge in Camden. He told me that he’d booked The Union Chapel for a gig in March 2018 and he was hoping he could make it work because he’d always wanted to play there. That’s the kind of romantic idealism that will always blindside me; I was sold on the idea instantly. Flash forward fifty-one weeks and I was listening to Martin, standing in front of the stage at The Union Chapel two hours before showtime telling me that the night was almost sold out on pre-sales. It was a bit of a “Field of Dreams” moment; flying in the face of the best professional advice, he filled The Union Chapel and decided to film the event as well.

I suppose you want to know what actually happened on the night. Well, it was opened by Mike Dawes, an incredible finger-style guitar player who combined virtuoso-level technique and passionate playing with outrageous stagecraft and a wicked sense of humour. You should really make the effort to see him play; you’ll fall in love instantly. Just for trivia fans, his first ever gig was supporting Martin Harley eleven years ago.

As for Martin and Daniel, this gig was the perfect demonstration of what they do. They’re gifted songwriters, they have superb voices (Daniel’s sweet tones complementing Martin’s more bluesy and soulful rasp) and they each play a couple of instruments incredibly well, Martin playing acoustic guitar and Weissenborn while Daniel plays upright bass and acoustic guitar. The atmosphere on stage was so relaxed that a thousand-capacity venue had the intimacy of a house gig where the performers were sipping and chilling and just enjoying the vibe. The highlights are completely subjective, but Martin’s Weissenborn tour-de-force on “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” and Daniel’s environmental ballad “Loyston” are difficult to beat, apart from two very special moments.

The first was the opening song of the encore, an unplugged, stage-front-and-centre version of Martin’s gorgeous ballad “Winter Coat”. It was breath-taking. The second was the well-deserved standing ovation at the end of the encore; it was a celebration of a wonderful performance and an artist who had the faith to follow his dream. Martin Harley and Daniel Kimbro, I tip my hat to both of you. Book it and they will come.

You have to love Green Note. With my photographer’s head on I whinge about the lighting, but I’ve taken some of my favourite shots in there. Anyway, it’s about the overall ambience, and that’s unbeatable. There aren’t too many places that could drag me out of a lovely warm house on a bitter winter night without even the consolation of industrial quantities of alcohol but, within minutes of arriving at the venue and grabbing a coffee the effort felt worthwhile. And that’s before The Lynn(e)s even got near the stage.

Lynne Hanson and Lynn Miles are two Canadian singer-songwriters. They decided to team up for their current “Heartbreak Song for the Radio” project (which is superb, by the way) and a tour featuring songs from the album and from their previous solo projects. They both have superb voices and play beautifully, although the Americana technology police might want to have a look at some of that hardware.

So, what was so good about this particular Sunday?  Well, some of the usual things; a bunch of powerful songs, two exceptional and complementary voices, some interesting twists on the arrangements (including a bit of electric twang and some haunting ebow effects) and a great rapport with the audience between sons. Stack all of that up and you have a pretty memorable night.

The tour was mainly about promoting “Heartbreak Songs…”, but, with two sets to fill, the Lynn(e)s featured songs from their albums either solo or as a duo. The quality throughout the two sets was one hundred per cent, but I’m going to try to pick out a few highlights. The gorgeous “Heartbreak Song for the Radio” has a very Carpenters feel and works perfectly in the live setting while the harmonies on “Cost so Much” are just superb, but there was one final trump card Lynn and Lynne had to play.

I’ve seen a few impressive unplugged encores at Green Note, but this one was sublime; after the first verse Lynne Hanson moved towards the bar while Lynn Miles stayed in front of the stage and the duo created perfect two-part harmonies across the venue on the lovely “Gotta Have Rain”. I’ve seen a few gigs at Green Note, but I’ve never seen an ending quite like this. Have a listen to their individual albums, but make a point of listening to this. You won’t regret it.

 

Korby Lenker is from East Nashville. To say East is a small distinction, but one that means everything to East Nashvillians. Anyway, it’s only marginally relevant because he travelled back to his native Idaho and many other places to record “Thousand Springs”, contrasting the natural settings with the modern technology he used to record contributions from a variety of artists in a variety of places. The process hints at montage or collage, but the final result sounds remarkably consistent considering the disparate nature of the components. The stories he tells, in a voice that almost cracks with emotion at times, are widely varied and have unexpected twists in the tale or the telling; not quite whimsical, but in the same ballpark.

The breadth of styles and subject matter is perfectly demonstrated by two songs that sit side by side on the album. “Last Man Standing” is by far the album’s most raucous song with a driving beat and some meaty guitar fills; it’s a tale of Sitting Bull and it was recorded on the site of his grave at Standing Rock. It’s thrown into sharper focus when it’s followed by the lighter “Book Nerd”, the story of a literary snob that comes on as a literary cousin to “Teenage Dirtbag” and demonstrates the clever, but never self-conscious, wordplay that permeates the album. There are a few twists on tired themes as well; “Late Bloomers” turns the overnight sensation idea on its head, bringing hope to all of us.

The album’s full of songs and arrangements that are clever and memorable but with little twists that are the hallmark of the truly original writer; small but evocative observations about coffee cups rolling around in the van, and the use of unusual arrangements and instruments (baritone ukulele, for example). There are some lovely harmonies throughout the album and contributions from a long list of luminaries of modern American music that help to create a very listenable and, at times, thought-provoking album. I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Twang Town anymore.

“Thousand Springs” is released on Soundly Music on March 16 2018.

Ronnie Scott’s: it’s not the first venue you associate with performances by American comedy legends, but Sandra Bernhard’s not your average American comedy legend and this was far from the average twenty-first century stand-up gig. The style and structure of the performance harked back to the jazz and cabaret clubs where music and comedy took equal billing across the night and often across individual performances; the band stayed on stage throughout the comedian’s set and often helped out with improvisations. This was how Lenny Bruce delivered his routines.

The stage line-up for “Sandemonium” is Sandra plus piano, drums and guitar; her act has developed over the decades from purely stand-up to a combination of songs, observations of everyday New York behaviour, politics (almost inevitably), showbiz stories, family stories and some stream of consciousness, Lenny Bruce-style riffing and spritzing. And that’s before you get to the impressions, which are seamlessly stitched in to the tapestry of the performance, not as stand-alone routines but as a way of smoothly moving the narrative along. Here’s an example.

The show opened with the usual introductions, Sandra talking about the greats who performed on the Ronnie Scott’s stage, segued effortlessly into a Nina Simone in Paris story that evoked the subject perfectly. And another; a routine about talking the subway to work on her “Sandyland” radio show led into a powerful interpretation of Tom Waits’ “Downtown Train”. The framework of the set was tightly constructed but gave the impression of total spontaneity; that’s the work of an artist with a genuine gift and a commitment to hard work. The songs, you ask? Well, it was an eclectic mix that included “Little Red Corvette” and a Pachelbel’s Canon mash-up featuring “Let it Be” and “Take on Me” among others.

This particular show was the third over two nights as part of a short visit combining the gigs and a hectic promotional schedule. Even starting at 11:15, Sandra Bernhard gave her adoring audience a full-on, inspirational performance and was willing to spend time after the gig with every fan who wanted an autograph, a selfie or just to say hello. I’m converted.

Sure, the melodies and the arrangements are important; they must be if Neilson Hubbard and Will Kimbrough are involved, but with Rod Picott, the stories are always front and centre. “Out Past the Wires” is no exception, in fact it takes the narratives a step further. In addition to the album, Rod’s also publishing a book exploring the stories of some of the characters that appear on the album. Listen to the beautifully-crafted vignettes studded through the twenty-two songs (that’s right twenty-two songs; hope you brought a packed lunch for this one) and you feel that you’re just scratching the surface of their lives. The ageing racer in “Primer Gray”, the teen queen in “Hard Luck Baby”, the struggling musician in “Straight Job” and the labourer in “Store Bought”; you really want to know the back story, or where they move on to outside this particular moment. Listen to the album(s) and it all makes perfect sense.

Credit where it’s due to the other musicians on the album as well (Lex Price, Evan Hutchings and Kris Donegan) for creating settings that allow the songs to sparkle and shine, whether they’re sprinkled with underplayed atmospherics or a full-on, full-band workout. Whether the backing is a gently finger-picked acoustic, intertwined electric guitars, Lennonesque harmonica or a brooding rock feel with heavily-reverbed guitar. And then there’s Rod Picott’s voice, weaving its raw fibres through the fabric of the songs to conjure up passion, pain and even aspiration. He even manages to ease back to mellow with a touch of falsetto on “Blanket of Stars”.

At a time when ten-song albums are becoming increasingly common and EP or double EP is rearing its ugly head, it’s an utterly audacious move to release a double album, but it works. The standard of the songs is uniformly high across he two discs, but I’m going to hit you with a few that caught my personal sweet spot. “Primer Gray” evokes “Nebraska”/”The River” era Springsteen with the battered car symbolising the central character, “Hard Luck Baby” spins the downward spiral from teen beauty into drudgery and “The Shape of You” is a lovely poetic take on the void left in a life when a relationship ends. Listen for yourself; the choice is huge and I won’t be offended if you disagree with my choices.

“Out Past the Wires” is released on Friday February 16th on Welding Rod Records (CD, LP or download).

If you want to see Rod live, he’s touring Europe and the UK from March.

Here’s a little taster for you: